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Looper column: Finding peace in pandemic and protest

Shayne Looper
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The Record

Columns share an author’s personal perspective.

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In 1936, the novelist and political activist Ethel Mannin asked Nobel Prize-winning poet W. B. Yeats to join her in petitioning the German government to release an outspoken pacifist who had been imprisoned.

1936 was also the year that Germany embarked on the Four-Year Plan, a Goering-led program to achieve military self-sufficiency with state-of-the-art weaponry. This was the same year that Germany, in violation of the Treaty of Versailles, seized control of the Rhineland. There was also a crackdown on dissenters. At one point, nearly one out of seven people incarcerated in Germany were political prisoners.

I have not been able to find out if Yeats agreed to help Mannin, but in response to her request, he wrote a letter directing her to his 1920 poem “The Second Coming.” He told Mannin that it foretold what was then happening.

In the opening stanza, Yeats had written: “Turning and turning in the widening gyre, the falcon cannot hear the falconer; things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, the blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere the ceremony of innocence is drowned; the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”

The ongoing pandemic, revelations about police brutality, and protests in cities and towns around the country make Yeats’ poem seem as prophetic - and frightening - as ever. We wonder if things are falling apart. Can the center possibly hold in 2020?

Of course, the pandemic and racial injustice of 2020 are hardly the first events since the 1930s to remind people of Yeats’ prophecy. In 1968, in another era of racial injustice and turmoil, Robert Kennedy mused that “…we seem to fulfill the vision of Yeats.”

It is not only the societal center that threatens to give way. Companies, families, marriages and individuals also collapse. As COVID-19 jeopardizes the wellbeing of society, a cancer diagnosis threatens the wellbeing of an individual. While racial hostility disrupts the nation, personal hostility is destroying hundreds of thousands of marriages.

Where is peace to be found in 2020’s widening gyre? To find it, must we opt out of ordinary life and disengage from the issues of the day? Does our only hope lie in escape from this vortex?

The idea of escape is tempting. How great it would be to get away from all the anger and injustice and tumult. People buy second homes and recreational vehicles in an attempt to do just that. They literally try to remove themselves from the fray.

Others, who have the desire but not the means to map this kind of escape, invest in distractions: in games, hobbies and pursuits that sometimes take over their lives. Golf can become a matter of life and death. A well-manicured lawn can mean the difference between success and failure. In this state of affairs, addiction is never more than a step away.

In the tumult of the widening gyre, people make the mistake of looking for peace at the fringes. They think that the farther they get away from the center, the more stillness they will find. But in the gyre (the eddy, the hurricane), the disruption is always greatest at the fringes. The stillness lies at the center.

Jesus understood this. Instead of offering peace through escape - peace “as the world gives” - he offered peace through engagement with God. No one escapes the widening gyre by getting out of it. There is no “out of it.” To find peace, one must rather go to the Center that holds. That center is God.

The farther we wander from him, the more chaos we experience. The nearer we draw to him, the greater our peace. God is, to use T. S. Eliot’s memorable words, “the still point,” from which the sometimes-wild dance that is life originates.

In the tumult of society or the pandemonium of a chaotic marriage, the way to peace is farther in, not farther away. But “farther in” means more than greater engagement in society or in marriage, though it may entail that. It means finding the Still Point, coming at last to the Center, the Center that holds. Peace is found in God.

Shayne Looper is the pastor of Lockwood Community Church in Coldwater, Michigan. His blog, “The Way Home,” is at shaynelooper.com.